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Ventana Wilderness Society Condor Reintroduction Program Big Sur, California
California Condors, Gymnogyps californianus, are currently being reintroduced to the central coast by the Ventana Wilderness Society, which is a non-profit, 501(c)3, organization. The Society is dedicated to the preservation of native plants and animals through research, education, and restoration. By the efforts of the Ventana Wilderness Society, Condors are now seen throughout the mountains, coastal canyons and valleys of Big Sur. You can help in these efforts by donating time or money. Please contact the Ventana Wilderness Society directly if you would like to help.
At the turn of the century, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) population began to plummet after decades of wanton shooting and poisoning. While habitat loss is a factor and limits the total population, the habitat that remains is still intact to sustain a population of condors. In 1987, the last wild condor was taken into captivity to join 26 others. A successful captive breeding and reintroduction program turned the tide. In 1998, the total population reached 150 birds, and 35 of those were in the wild.
Given the success of bald eagle reintroduction, Ventana Wilderness Society was requested by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to join the California Condor Recovery Program in a ten-year first phase effort to bring the condor back from the brink of extinction. VWS is the first private non-profit in California to release condors. These majestic birds can be seen flying over the mountains and valleys of California's Central Coast. The goal of VWS is to restore condors to California.
Cool Condor Facts
• Condors do not have vocal cords so they force air through their body to make hissing and grunting noises.
• Condors defecate on their legs to reduce their core body temperature. This is known as Urohydrosis.
• Condors are genetically related to storks. • Adult condors show their emotion through skin color changes. • Condors eat an average of 2-3 lbs at a feeding. • It sometimes takes a condor one week to hatch from an egg. • Chicks are born with their eyes open. • When scared, condors regurgitate (throw up) their stomach contents. • Condors do not have talons like eagles or hawks; their nails are more like
Notes from the Field, February 2001
On February 10 a large winter storm blanketed Big Sur with heavy snowfall making mountain roads impassable above elevations of 2,500 feet. Ventana Wilderness Society biologists, Marylise Lefevre and Ross Conover, attempted to drive to the release site and made it only halfway before the truck got buried in snow up to its axles. For the next five hours they hiked eight miles through 2 feet of snow with heavy packs before finally reaching the release site. Upon closer observation of the release pen they found the five young condors and their mentor, Hoinewut, had weathered the storm quite well and were in great shape. A few of the young condors had collected as much as an inch of snow on their backs by the end of the storm. This was the first time any of these young condors had ever experienced snow.
On February 13 biologist Jessica Steffen, accompanied by volunteers Jason Scott and Lionel Leston, hiked in eight miles to the release site to assist Marylise and Ross with clearing the road of treefall. Although they successfully removed all the fallen debris from the road, deep snow still prevented vehicle access, and food supplies for the condors and biologists were starting to run very low.
On February 16 biologist Katie Hughes and I began to scramble together the needed supplies for the marooned condors and field staff. We received a $100.00 emergency food donation from a local grocery store for the field crew and pulled condor food (still- born calf carcasses) from our storage freezers. That afternoon, with supplies loaded, we successfully four-wheeled our way through deep snow to the release site. We arrived at the release site just after nightfall and placed out a carcass for the young condors in the release pen and another carcass for those out in the wild. Later that evening, exhausted, we finally arrived at base camp and celebrated the occasion with a cheap bottle of wine.
A few days later the snow began to melt and vehicle access was again possible. The road was clear for now but new challenges were arising for the condors and field crew. From February 17-25 warm, heavy rainfall drenched the Big Sur coast range. A condor's ability to search and find food is greatly reduced during heavy rain. The condor's large wings and feathers are basically nonfunctional when wet, making flight nearly impossible. Condors have adapted, over thousands of years of evolution, to survive these long spells without food by storing meat in their crops and slowing down their metabolism. We have documented many of the wild condors going over ten days without food during rainy weather. Despite the incessant rainfall at the end of February, the wild condors successfully found supplemental carcasses, capitalizing on breaks in the storm to fly to these feeding areas. We are proud to report that all the condors and field crew made it through February unscathed and a little wiser. Februarys of past have been as challenging as this one and we're always glad when we make it through these unplanned adventures safely. Great viewing opportunities of the condors can be found at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The condors tend to perch in the top of redwood trees in the early morning and late afternoon. Keep your eyes to the sky, until next time....
--Joe Burnett, Field Supervisor -
Notes from the Field, January 2001
The installation of a solar-powered camera monitoring system was completed at the start of the month. The entire system was a contribution by the TerraFocus Project. Please visit www.solarexpert.com for complete details of installation and contributors. The camera will transmit live video via radio signal a half mile across a steep canyon to our basecamp. In basecamp we can view this live video, allowing us to monitor condor activity in the flight pen. The video monitoring system increases the safety of the condors in the flight pen by reducing the response time to an emergency. The safety of condors in the flight pen is our highest priority. - On January 26 the Ventana Wilderness Society transferred 3 additional condors from the Los Angeles Zoo to the release facility in Big Sur. These condors were placed in the flight pen with W19, W22, and W33. The new group consists of two 9-month old chicks, W30 (male) and W31 (female), and one 10-year old adult male, Hoinewut (pronounced "Ho-ee-nee-whut", named by the Chumash Native American tribe of southern California). Hoinewut's adult presence will have a great influence on the young white tags as they prepare for release over the next couple of months.
The three newcomers were released into the flight pen the morning of January 27 and Hoinewut wasted no time attaining the top position. This is the first of many important lessons Hoinewut will teach the young white tags. Marylise Lefevre, who watches over the young condors prior to their release, observed Hoinewut perform a courtship display to female condor W33. A courtship display is when the male partially opens his wings, droops his head down, and walks away from the female (hoping she will follow him!). W33 did not respond to his display; she's still a bit too young (less than a year old) to understand his adult behavior. The entire wild population of Big Sur condors, currently at fourteen, visited the flight pen enclosure this month. The presence of new condors is always a big attraction for the wild birds. Hoinewut is no stranger to the wild flock. He mentored the yellow tags and interacted with the blue tags visually from inside the flight pen two years ago. Y68 was very close to Hoinewut before his release back in 1999 and they were recently observed nibbling beaks through the flight pen fence on one of Y68's visits to the pen. Social bonds appear to be long lasting for condors as does their memory of past associations with individual condors. New bonds continue to be established between the orange tags and the new group of white tags. Hoinewut's mentoring will be felt beyond the confines of the flight pen. His visual influence and nonverbal communication are being absorbed by the wild flock every time they visit.
Flights for the wild flock this month were limited to the Big Sur region. The presence of new birds at the release site and unfavorable flying conditions typical at this time of year contributed to their lack of movement. The weekly aerial tracking effort continues to provide valuable roosting and movement data on the wild flock. This data has allowed the field crew and me to further intensify our tracking effort on the Big Sur flock, which can be very challenging at times.
If you're looking for an opportunity to view the condors, I would recommend visiting Pfieffer Big Sur State Park. The Buzzard's Roost trail and Valley View trail have been the most rewarding for condor watchers. Keep an eye on the surrounding ridge lines and redwood treetops for a possible sighting. Condors are easily confused with turkey vultures, so make sure you get a good look at the flight behavior. Turkey vultures (1) "teeter" when flying and (2) the wings form a V-shape in flight. Condors have (1) long flat wings that are very stable when soaring, (2) a white triangular patch on the underside of each wing, and (3) fingerlike primary feathers that extend from each wing in flight.
Good luck, until next time... Joe Burnett, Field Supervisor
Notes from the Field